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New book examines the exit from Afghanistan

May 03, 2013

“Narrating the Exit from Afghanistan” examines the story of the war in Afghanistan, a conflict that leaves many Americans and the majority of Afghans confused as to the war’s current purpose.

“Reasons for going to war with Afghanistan were clear for Americans post 9-11, but the majority of Afghan citizens aren’t clear on what we’re doing there, what the horrors of 9-11 consisted of and how this event affected America,” said Steven R. Corman, author of the book and Hugh Downs School of Human Communication professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University.

“Narrating the Exit from Afghanistan” examines the story of the war in Afghanistan by viewing the conflict from varied perspectives through chapters authored by historians and scholars, who compare the exit to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, draw parallels to lessons learned from the Vietnam War and view the conflict through the lens of the Taliban and their messages to the Afghan people. The book also examines historical narratives and collective memory as well as concluding the war with a fitting end.

“With withdrawal coming up, the narrative is not too clear for us or for Afghanistan,” Corman said. “In the U.S., it was clear until 2004 why we went there after 9-11, to get rid of Al Qaeda and their Taliban hosts. Once that happened, the war just kind of drug on there.”

The story is even more surprising from an Afghan point of view. Corman recalls watching a PBS show where a crew traveled to Afghanistan and showed people pictures of 9-11. No one knew what it was except for one police officer, he said. A 2010 survey by ICOS showed that 92 percent of Afghan citizens in the south regions of the country were unaware of 9-11 events and a majority did not know why the foreigners were there.  

“Many of them don’t know at all about the events of 9-11, so they don’t know why we’re there in the first place,” Corman said. “Some of them think we’re Russians,” he said.

Lessons learned from Vietnam shouldn’t be repeated, Corman said. “The exit from Vietnam was one that worked out particularly badly for the U.S. from a narrative point of view. That was widely regarded as a disaster.”

Leaving Afghanistan in such a matter could prove disastrous in the future in terms of policy. The closest analogy to the current situation Afghanistan is the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from the country. “They did everything right. They supported a functional government until the Soviet Union collapsed. That’s when the Taliban basically overthrew the government and took over,” he said.

Another chapter explores the role of the Taliban and the narrative story they are communicating to the Afghan people as they seek to position themselves to return to power after U.S. and NATO allies leave the country.  

Corman closes the book by evaluating the current plan for exit by the International Security Assistance Force, the risks involved and how to mitigate those risks. Exiting Afghanistan shouldn’t be viewed as the end of the narrative, he said.

“The end of combat and the end of the narrative are not the same: The narrative of the war will extend beyond the operational end and ultimately determine its success or failure in the eyes of history,” writes Corman in the book.

Losing interest could mean a repeat of history. Another important goal is to undermine the Taliban’s “kinder, gentler” narrative.  It’s also crucial to repair our existing narrative in Afghanistan and in the United States, he added.

From “Narrating the Exit from Afghanistan:” Because historical narratives are selective, repairing the existing narrative of the Afghanistan war is possible, given thoughtful effort. Undermining the Taliban narrative and guarding against a repeat-of-history scenario supports a projected resolution in which both Western and Afghan audiences can participate.

Steven R. Corman is the director of the Center for Strategic Communication at Arizona State University